MR James’ ghost story “Casting the Runes” (1911) furnishes exhibit A whenever Tychy is making the argument that literature is intrinsically superior to film and television. Terrorised in his bed, Mr Dunning reaches for the matches: “So he put his hand into the well-known nook under the pillow: only, it did not get so far. What he touched was, according to his account, a mouth, with teeth, and with hair about it…” No horror film could convey such a thing and, as a consequence, no horror film could ever be as scary.
But how does “Casting the Runes” work in the theatre? This evening I snapped up possibly the last ticket to join Box Tale Soup’s journey into the story. BTS are a two-actor company who know how to fill theatres: they select popular literary classics and adapt them for family audiences, with puppetry, soulful songs, and smart stage effects. Tonight’s audience is large and appreciative, but if a ghosts-and-scholars fan manages to slip in amongst the families they will find that James’ story is treated deferentially. This production has taken only discreet liberties and there are no points at which the original story has been bent distressingly out of shape.
Antonia Christophers and Noel Byrne, the sum of BTS, at first look rather like the Avengers. They are stylish and swanky; one is distinguished and the other has the sex appeal. Jamesian purists might feel their nerves flutter when reading this. A woman… in MR James! Quick, fetch the smelling salts! It gets worse – BTS seem to be compensating for a century of misogyny by making Antonia Christophers play practically every character in the story aside from Dunning. Harrington’s brother duly becomes Harrington’s sister. Yet this play still seems to be authentically Jamesian – pips, core, the lot – and so perhaps BTS have proved that the elements which some readers find unappealing in James can be effortlessly negated.
The puppetry works, if you have patience with this sort of thing. Box Tale Soup are so named because they carry around all of their sets and props in suitcases. To me, it looks mildly embarrassing for a thespian to be fiddling about with homemade cardboard props, but the decision to cast a puppet as the occultist Karswell was undoubtedly the right one. BTS’s Karswell is a sleek spectre who flows noiselessly around the stage. To have a human Karswell mincing about in front of the audience and making histrionic threats risks leaving them with a figure who is only theoretically frightening.
So was “Casting the Runes” frightening? Knowing the story by heart, it is hard to go through it all again with new eyes and shudder afresh at it. Yet the two children in the front row seemed to be frozen completely still whenever Karswell took to the stage. “Casting the Runes” is certainly a lot better than any of the recent BBC adaptations, but it can hardly hope to contend with Karswell himself. In his free magic lantern street performance on the Royal Mile, Karswell unleashed “a great mass of snakes, centipedes, and disgusting creatures with wings” upon a Fringe audience. There was a terrified stampede of conjurers, human statues, Japanese tourists, and Bratwurst vendors, all in a swirling cloud of flyers.